On Philosophy

June 15, 2007

Leibniz’s Dilemma

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Leibniz, as well as a number of other religious people, think that this world is the best possible world. And seriously holding that to be the case raises some problems. But first let me say a bit as to why anyone would think that this world is the best possible world. As they see it, it follows directly from believing that god is good and omnipotent. Now the first consequence of god being omnipotent and good is that he must be omniscient as well. Because if he wasn’t omniscient he would have to necessarily limit his power to areas in which he could predict its consequences (to do otherwise would be irresponsible. and hence not good), and thus would fail to be omnipotent.

Now, given that god is omnipotent, omniscient, and good he must create only the best possible world. Obviously god, from his act of creation, can see everything that will follow from it (perfectly predict the future). And because he is all powerful he can create the universe however he likes (or change it to be however he likes, if god comes into existence simultaneously with the universe). Thus everything that will ever happen is completely under god’s control. And if he is good that means that he will engineer things so that they turn out the best they possibly can (to allow things to be worse than they could otherwise be is an ethical failing). And thus this world is the best of all possible worlds.

Now the traditional way (really the only way) to try to escape this conclusion is to invoke free will, and claim that the future course of events isn’t completely under god’s control. Let us ignore for the moment that this contradicts god’s omniscience, since he would be unable to predict the future, and consider the possibility seriously. Here we can reason best by analogy. Assume I am creating a race of robots. Is it better for me to give them free will or program them deterministically? It seems clear that it is better to avoid giving them free will. You see if you give them free will they may very well choose to do evil. and you, as their creator would. be held at least partly accountable for that evil. Specifically if the robots do evil because they have free will someone could justly complain that we should have not given them this free will, and should have instead programmed them to be good. The only possible defense to this complaint is to insist that free will has some intrinsic value. And the only possible candidate for this value would be to claim that the robots couldn’t really be good without free will. But that is not a valid argument. Without going into a discussion of determinism, which reveals that people can be good and morally responsible for their actions even if those actions are completely determined, simply consider a robot programmed to want to be good, which has no ability to change that desire. Although this robot doesn’t really have free will, because it can’t want to be evil, it certainly is a good robot, by any standard, because of its deep desire to do good things. Thus we can conclude by analogy that if god is good he wouldn’t give us free will of the sort that lets our actions be unpredictable, and thus possibly lead to events turning out worse than the otherwise could have.

Thus we can conclude that if god exists, is good, and is omnipotent that this world is the best possible world, which as a corollary entails that every event that ever will happen has been determined since the beginning of time. And this raises a serious ethical problem. The deterministic nature of this world is not the problem that I am alluding to of course, although it is normally what is challenged. What I see as a problem is the fact that no matter what we do the consequences of our actions must have the effect, at least in the long run, of making the world a better place, or at least, in the long run, that they were the best possible actions we could have taken. This is because the world is the best possible world, so it is a contradiction to suppose that some other action would have made the world a better place. If some other action could have been better than we would have taken that action, because god gives us a guarantee, so to speak, that this world is the best possible world, and thus that all the best actions, from the big perspective, are taken. But that fact completely destroys ethical responsibility. No matter what action I take it is the best possible action I could have taken, no matter how reprehensible it may seem from our point of view. How then could we hold anyone accountable for their actions? Should we wish instead that they had acted in a way that would have made the world worse? But that is contrary to ethics, which motivates us to try and make the world a better place. Even if we judge them by their intent, someone, who has reasoned as above, may simply act on impulse, doing all sorts of horrible things, and reasoning that no matter what they do it must be for the best, otherwise god would have made the world so that they chose otherwise. Thus they may have intentions that we cannot fault, despite their horrible acts.

So god’s existing, being omnipotent, and being good completely eliminates ethics. This I take to be a reductio ad absurdum of the concept of god. If we wish to keep ethics, in any form, we must get rid of either god’s existence, his omnipotence or his goodness. Now clearly getting rid of god’s omnipotence is absurd, because that is what differentiates god from arbitrary objects within the universe. And getting rid of his goodness is also absurd, because it undercuts the motivation to believe in and worship god in the first place. And so we are left with the conclusion that if we are to save ethics that we must do away with god (accept that he doesn’t exist). Since the existence of ethics is more certain than the existence of god we have reason to believe that god does not exist. QED



  1. There are a couple of different problems with this one.

    1) Suppose I have leg cancer, and then a psychopath comes and cuts off my leg for some weird fetishistic reason. Well, it actually is all to the good, since his doing that saves me the cost of getting a surgeon to do it, but the guy still did something evil. Intention matters in assessing the morality of people, even if we end up being consequentialists about the world as a whole.

    But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.) Certainly not! If that were so, how could God judge the world? Someone might argue, “If my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory, why am I still condemned as a sinner?” Why not say—as we are being slanderously reported as saying and as some claim that we say—”Let us do evil that good may result”? Their condemnation is deserved.

    Romans 3:5–8

    2) It is possible that God might still be good even if He knowingly created an evil world, if He after creating it He took on the appropriate punishment for His responsibility vis-a-vis such a creation. In this scenario, we wouldn’t say that our world is the best of all possible worlds, only that God is not to be condemned for loving it anyway.

    Comment by Carl — June 15, 2007 @ 12:29 am

  2. 1- Well it depends what kind of ethics you subscribe to. That’s why I threw in the bit about intention, to cover all the bases to speak. Did you skip that part?

    2- Accepting punishment for doing something bad doesn’t make it right, it just makes you a bad person who was punished.

    Comment by Peter — June 15, 2007 @ 12:39 am

  3. 1. I don’t see how you’re speaking to the objection. “It all works out in the end, so I’m free to hurt people” is a bad intention for people to have. The response to that someone with that intention would be “Yeah, this is as good as the world can get — given that jerks like you are in the world. Be less jerky, would ya? The less jerky you are the better sort of world is possible.”

    2. What about civil disobedience? In that case, you break the law, which would ordinarily be wrong, but you are still in the right because a) your motivations for doing the ‘wrong’ thing were good and b) you agree to accept the punishments for your actions.

    Comment by Carl — June 15, 2007 @ 1:30 am

  4. 1- But “I want the best outcome” is a good intention, one that you could have accompanying any behavior.

    2- Breaking the law in such cases isn’t ethically wrong, obviously, just legally wrong, which is a different game.

    Comment by Peter — June 15, 2007 @ 1:37 am

  5. Also, is goodness something that can be programmed into a robot? Maybe doing things that others call good can be, but can being good? It is prima facie implausible, because being good seems to be tied in with the ability to choose otherwise, according to all of the available evidence. It appears not so much unlikely as likely that a propensity for being good is something that must arise from the operation of a will that is in this sense free. If that is indeed so, then your argument breaks down at that point.

    Comment by Enigman — June 15, 2007 @ 2:02 am

  6. Well if good is tied to the ability to do otherwise then we are all doomed anyways, since the unvierse appears to be deterministic, and thus no one has the ability to do otherwise. As I have defended at length elsewhere it is best simply to consider what choices are made, not how they might have been made. Goodness is simply making the right choice, nothing more or less.

    Comment by Peter — June 15, 2007 @ 2:05 am

  7. “Goodness is simply making the right choice, nothing more or less.”

    If you accepted that definition, then you would make my fetishist amputator good, as it was a good idea to cut off the (secretly) cancerous limb. Surely good is making the right choice for the right reasons, not just the right choice.

    “1- But ‘I want the best outcome’ is a good intention, one that you could have accompanying any behavior.”

    Someone who attempts to justify doing evil because this the best of all possible worlds cannot claim “I want the best outcome” as his motivation. The best outcome is guaranteed to come no matter what it turns out that we do. Thus, when deciding to act evilly or not, it cannot affect the decision making process.

    “2- Breaking the law in such cases isn’t ethically wrong, obviously, just legally wrong, which is a different game.”

    See Kirkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” for an investigation about whether the analogous reasoning can be extended into the ethical realm.

    Comment by Carl — June 15, 2007 @ 2:15 am

  8. I would refer you to my writings on choice, when I talk about evaluating choices based on their intended consequences. But I will say no more aobut that.

    1- Let me put this another way- he would be as good as god is. God reasons: I will create a world in which person does X because doing X is the best action in that situation. The person reasons: I feel like doing X and I intend to act on that feeling. Because god exists X is the best action in this situation. I wan’t the best outcomes possible. Therefore I will actually act on that feeling; it must be the right thing to do. X is unrestricted. Thus if god can be good in creating such a world a person reasoning in this way within the world can also be good.

    2- To conflate ethics with legality would make ethical relative in a bad way. Plus Kirkegaard makes me nauseous.

    Comment by Peter — June 15, 2007 @ 2:20 am

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